Everyone loves a good joke — even researchers as well as their editors, publishers, and colleagues. The problems, of course, lie in what constitutes a good joke and in what context they use humor. So, is it okay to include humor in scholarly publishing? Is it appropriate, and will readers appreciate it? Is it beneficial, detrimental — or just confusing?
Examples of humor in scholarly publishing
Over the years, publishers have included mistakes, faux pas, humorous comments, and satirical parody papers in scholarly journals. Here’s a sampling:
Humor can be confusing. In a biology journal, under acknowledgments, this phrase appeared: “We appreciate the very candid critical insights of 2 anonymous reviewers, M. Gompper and K. Beard.” Is it vague usage, carelessness, or authors just being funny?
Another example found under acknowledgments in a cognitive science article reads: “We would like to thank Karla Miller for sleeping late one morning, leaving Tim and Steve a bit bored; and Saad Jbabdi for making the brains look pretty.” It was certainly written intentionally, but was it intended to escape the editor’s pen?
Article titles are common places for authors to insert their wit and creativity. For example, “Wax on, Wax off: Pubic Hair Grooming and Potential Complications,” “You Probably Think This Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation,” and “Chemical Processes in the Deep Interior of Uranus.”
However, authors who insert humor into titles to draw attention may be misguided. One study found papers with humorous names were cited less frequently, possibly because readers took them less seriously. And titles with inappropriate humor, like “Hung jury: testimonies of genital surgery by transsexual men,” may turn people away.
One group of researchers admitted to using Bob Dylan song lyrics in their articles due to a “long-running bet.”
Some papers are funny simply due to the absurdity of their topics, for example, “The nature of navel fluff” and “Effects of cocaine on honeybee dance behavior.” Which is funnier: the absurdity of the study or the researchers’ “need to know?”
Some journals devote entire sections or issues to humor. The BMJ’s Christmas issue is one example. It contains original research with a humorous bent as well as essays and commentary. Because it is labeled as a humorous issue, authors have creative license to show off their funny sides.
But even well-labeled and -intentioned humor can have consequences. One satirical study, published in the 2001 Christmas issue, examined years after hospitalization if praying for people had any effect on the length of their hospital stays. Clearly a joke, right? Ironically, researchers cited it years later in a study about the effects of intercessory prayer.
Even satirical studies meant to be tongue-in-cheek can end up in research databases, often without contextual information about their nature. For these reasons, many publishers recommend releasing satirical papers separately from actual research.
In general, readers appreciate researchers adding a little levity to journals. It makes authors seem more human and relatable. But they must use it with caution. Researchers considering using humor should make sure it is not inappropriate or hurtful or that readers could easily misconstrue it as such. Make sure to clearly indicate it as humor so it doesn’t reappear years later with unintended consequences. In addition, ensure peer reviewers and editors are rigorous enough to weed out inappropriate comments and catch mistakes, which, although humorous, can reflect badly on publication legitimacy.
Because academics and researchers are often viewed as stodgy and humorless, they are in perfect positions to capitalize on humor. Often, the best humor is unexpected. But remember, there is no such thing as “universally funny” and there will always be someone who doesn’t “get it.” But that doesn’t mean you should banish it from the pages of your journals altogether.